AT&T mulling U.K., Dutch networks for takeover in European push

AT&T may be mulling a bid to takeover a European cellular network, according to reports. At this stage it's all talk and no walk, but any bid would be fraught with difficulties -- not least because of the potential for antitrust and data protection concerns.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor

U.S. cellular giant AT&T is mulling a takeover bid of a European mobile network, with eyes on the U.K.'s new 4G LTE network EE, or Dutch provider KPN, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal.

Currently the U.S.' second largest cellular network by subscribers, AT&T is reportedly looking to take over one of the two networks in order to get a foot in the door with European consumers, people familiar with the matter told the Journal.

Some AT&T executives believe a "unique opening" now exists to expand into Europe, even making a mark in Germany or other significant European markets.

KPN, based in the Netherlands, is already 28 percent owned by a Latin American cellular firm in which AT&T owns a stake. The Dutch cellular giant, the largest in the country, has tried to sell its pan-European subsidiary operations in Belgium and Germany to others but failed to make a deal.

New network on the block, EE (formerly Everything Everywhere) -- a joint venture between Orange U.K. and T-Mobile U.K.'s parent companies -- was also floated for being a potential buy for AT&T. The network is the first 4G LTE network in the U.K., but also thanks to the merger of the two smaller networks, is now the largest 2G and 3G network in the country.

But, at this stage, however, AT&T has made no commitments and is merely "studying targets" and has no plans to make any in-roads with acquiring the firms, making this a whole overblown exercise.  

A deal could be made before the end of the year, the Journal reports.

All talk, no walk

The news comes only a couple of years after AT&T's acquisition with T-Mobile USA was shot down by the U.S. Justice Department on antitrust grounds. A proposed $39 billion takeover of the fourth largest wireless carrier raised eyebrows in Washington D.C., and the government was quick to intervene to ensure that the would-be combined firms wouldn't kill off any hopes of any other smaller firm growing.

While the bid may be only in internal consideration stage, it would be quite interesting to see how the Europeans would react to such a move -- particularly if the European Commission thinks that there are antitrust or trans-Atlantic data protection concerns to take into account. Considering that while the EU and U.S. authorities speak to each other on a regular basis in regards to antitrust concerns -- even, albeit, if the two don't always see eye to eye -- the EU may take on board the Justice Department's notes from the AT&TT-Mobile case and apply it on its side of the pond.

But, also taking into account the strong rift between U.S. and EU authorities on data protection matters, it wouldn't come as much of a surprise if the EU would purposefully block any acquisition by a U.S. parent because of the vast amount of personal and sensitive mobile and cellular data belonging to European citizens that would be potentially available for grabs by the U.S. authorities.

And then you have the actual practicalities, which make sense on the face of it, but would cause serious headaches for a U.S. firm trying to break into the European market.

AT&T, unlike rivals Sprint and Verizon, runs on the GSM network, making a European takeover far easier and simpler -- particularly when it comes to data roaming. But, even though Europe is (on the most part) one single economy and shares a free flow of data, standards, laws and people, the cellular networks are fragmented to the point where it's almost impossible to make sense of it.

Though all networks in the EU run on the GSM standard -- making it easier for AT&T to make a bid for a European carrier than say Verizon, which runs on the CDMA standard -- the market is heavily fragmented.

Very few networks talk to each other. T-Mobile USA doesn't talk to T-Mobile U.K., and 4G LTE phones on the U.K.'s EE network won't connect to LTE in any other European market. Although, at least on the bright side, European regulators made the pan-European data roaming costs far cheaper, so it's less painful on the travellers' wallet. 

There are very few 'international' networks. London, U.K.-based Vodafone or Spanish network Telefonica are two of the more better known networks, which have outposts all around the world for a fairly good spread of global coverage between the two. AT&T's shift to try and emulate this would be a good opportunity to bridge the trans-Atlantic divide, and to take on the likes of the already-established global networks.

But, at this stage, there just isn't enough incentive for either EE or KPN to allow a takeover bid. AT&T may well be in exploratory stages, but the likelihood that a takeover could actually go through -- on such a large scale -- before the end of this year -- is unlikely, considering the size of the deal that AT&TT-Mobile, for instance, would have been.

An AT&T spokesperson declined to comment. The company doesn't comment on rumor or speculation. 

Image credit: AT&T, via CNET.

Editorial standards